Distributors line up their horror films around the end of October like a row of pumpkins, some plump and inviting, others on the turn. One of the better current examples of the genre is the Australian picture The Babadook (15), which demonstrates what a loss it will be to the horror movie when our world goes fully digital. It relies for much of its creepiness on ingredients that extend back before sound cinema and into the writing of M R James – shadows thrown by banisters, a shape glimpsed out of the corner of the eye, a ticking clock on a mantelpiece. Who even has a ticking clock any more?
It doesn’t get much more old school than the central plot device of a book that appears mysteriously on the shelf and cannot be purged from the home. A haunted e-reader wouldn’t have quite the same effect, though I concede that there are parallels with the unsolicited arrival in iTunes libraries of the latest U2 album.
Reaching for a bedtime story to placate her twitchy young son, Amelia (Essie Davis) is surprised to find a pop-up book called Mister Babadook. It details the arrival in a boy’s bedroom of a splay-fingered, frizzy-haired, top-hatted menace with more than a passing resemblance to the comedian Jerry Sadowitz. Amelia does what any good Australian mother would do under the circumstances: she tosses the book on the barbie.
But the horrors come from within and are not easily dispelled. Amelia’s husband died in a car crash while driving her to hospital to give birth to their son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). She has buried her pain and sits in a wanly smiling stupor, gazing enviously at married couples in public. Mister Babadook represents the return of the repressed: it is Amelia’s husband, along with all her unresolved grief, regurgitated
in monstrous form.
The distinction between different species of monster becomes academic. Police officers and social workers are every bit as sinister as any demon. There is also a devilish in-joke in the casting: Amelia’s one gentle ally is played by Daniel Henshall, whose turn as a real-life serial killer in the Australian film Snowtown has rendered him forever macabre. Even Amelia is not exclusively a victim. But the writer-director Jennifer Kent places psychological credibility behind every scene so that it is plausible even on the few occasions when it fails to be frightening. We know Amelia is really addressing herself when she screams at Samuel: “Why can’t you just be normal?” or “I wish it was you who died.”
The film depends for its success on warmth as well as chills. In this respect, Kent’s script is well served by nuanced performances from Davis, who makes her character’s dizzying tonal shifts seem effortless, and Wiseman, whose flying-saucer eyes register infinite gradations of fear.
Retro horror is also in evidence in Annabelle (15), which has been in cinemas for several weeks and is still going strong. This 1960s-set prequel to the 2013 hit The Conjuring explains the provenance of the possessed doll from the earlier film. Cradled in the arms of a dying Manson family-style cult member, the inanimate Annabelle absorbs into her eye a drop of blood from the woman’s slit throat. What had previously been nothing more than a freaky-looking toy is transformed thereafter into a conduit for evil, visiting spookiness upon her owners and their infant daughter: the hob in the haunted house takes it on itself to cook popcorn (a nice nod there to us savages in the stalls) and the sewing machine springs into action in the middle of the night. A shame that possession never results in anything useful happening – the washing machine giving the sheets a nocturnal spin, or the kettle descaling itself.
The horror in Annabelle never rises above this silliness. Dolls, like clowns, are scary enough without demonic possession and the eeriest moments in the film are the simplest ones, such as the cutaway during a conversation to the doll upstairs, its head turned as if eavesdropping. One aspect left a rancid taste: in a movie that owes so much to Rosemary’s Baby, it seems imprudent to invoke the murder of Sharon Tate in a scene in which a pregnant woman is stabbed by a crazed cult member. Whatever crimes he may have perpetrated, Roman Polanski doesn’t deserve to have the traumas of his past turned into entertainment by a film that cannot own up to its insinuations.
Road-tested scares are also available this Hallowe’en in the form of a reissue of Don Siegel’s 1956 movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers (PG). The remake, from 1978, is arguably scarier. That was a banner year for the genre: it also brought John Carpenter’s Halloween (18), which is getting a one-day-only re-release this year. The gliding point-of-view shots and innovative use of space taught audiences to scan the empty frame for places where horror might be hiding.
Its influence was strongly felt in two excellent new pictures that screened recently at the London Film Festival and will open next year: David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, about a sexually transmitted curse, manages to be both dreamy and nightmarish. And Kristy, by the British director Olly Blackburn, is an old-fashioned slasher movie that has on its side a pervasive sense of dread and a use of DIY tinfoil masks that will make it a perennial Hallowe’en party favourite to rank alongside Friday the 13th and Scream.